Wednesday, May 7th, 2008
Readers of this blog know that I am a skeptic on light rail in Indianapolis (and other similar sized cities). However, the Central Indiana Regional Transit Authority, a multi-county group studying transit options, is about to put forth a plan that gets closer to something I would be willing to endorse.
Their idea is to start with a commuter rail line in the northeast corridor, using diesel multiple unit (DMU) trainsets (basically self-powered cars, with each one having its own diesel-electric engines rather than relying on a locomotive car or overhead power lines). This would run at peak periods only. Union Station would be the downtown terminal. The line could be build in 2-4 years if funding is found. According to cwilson at skyscrapercity, Mayor Ballard is actually backing this now, seeing it as a potential economic development tool more so than a pure transportation project. He’s also pushing to include an airport line.
This scaled down plan has a lot going for it, at least if they do it right. Among them, it will cost less. If you start with commuter rail only, you can probably get away with a single track line with some sidings. Also, you don’t need to install expensive overhead power lines. And you’ve probably got more limited stations that don’t need barrier systems, high platform loading, etc. And it can be done faster. What’s more, it makes things far easier for running on regular rail lines. The FRA has extremely strict rules on rail safety in the US, far stricter than Europe. A passenger train on a line that also carries standard trains has to be able to withstand a collision with a freight train. This means it has to weight lots, etc. Most light rail cars don’t qualify. DMU cars, on the other hand, might be easier to get through.
This plan is also in line with my suggestions to start small and build up. I say start with bus to prove the business case at low cost and then convert to rail later. This is sort of doing that, by taking the Fishers express bus service and upgrading it to a commuter rail line. Later it could be converted to a light rail line with more frequent service, or double tracking. For example, the Metra Wisconsin Central service in Chicago started with basically five trains inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening at peak periods only on a single track line, and then expanded from there. A similar dynamic could work here.
Of course, there is no funding for this plan. So that is a huge barrier. That includes both capital and operating funds. There are also physical challenges. The Nickle Plate line to Fishers probably requires significant track and signal upgrades. The entire rail line south of 21st St. is gone, and rebuilding a connection to Union Station could be costly and problematic because of the busy CSX freight line through downtown. On the plus side, the line itself is already owned by local governments.
As for an airport line, there is also a rail line, already double tracked, that runs from downtown almost to the airport. This would require upgrades as well, freight carrier coordination, etc., but the line is there.
As noted in the Star article, the express bus service to various suburbs ends in a year or two when federal funding runs out. Any funding mechanism put in place to support light rail should absolutely preserve express bus routes, at least where the rail line doesn’t serve. This shows that transit has actual staying power, and builds the constituency for it over time. For example, keeping bus service to Greenwood keeps that city interested, and paves the way for potentially future rail expansion along the existing Louisville and Indiana line to the south. If the express bus service is allowed to lapse along with the federal grant, it would be hard for me to take transit seriously in Indianapolis.
The use of Union Station as a terminal probably makes some sense from an implementation perspective. However, this is not close to the major office employment centers downtown, which are mostly north of there. This highlights again one key advantage bus has over rail. I’m not sure where the Fishers express bus lets out, but there is no reason it couldn’t be, say, Meridian and Ohio. This puts it practically at the front door of most of the major office buildings downtown. Union Station is half a mile away (a ten minute walk). Also, an express bus is just that. Although the rail line to Fishers has a more direct route, a non-stop bus might actually be faster on a door to door basis since there are fewer, if any, intermediate stops.
From a purely transportation standpoint, it will still likely be difficult to cost-justify the rail system. But a less costly and more realistic system that can be in service quickly might be the type of investment that a city could justify making on some other basis. This makes it not much different from a stadium or convention center I guess.